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Elkhart, Goshen, Concord schools will need to revamp busing, delay building repairs

Schools are facing major cuts in their capital projects and transportation funds, which could change student bus schedules and delay school maintenance projects.

Posted on March 2, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on March 2, 2013 at 11:37 a.m.

Elkhart County’s largest school districts will need to delay building maintenance and revamp school transportation plans after learning they’ll receive significantly less money this year than expected because of caps on local property taxes.

According to projections that local schools received from Umbaugh and Associates, a financial advisory firm to governmental units, Elkhart Community Schools will receive two-thirds of what it expected from local taxes, while Concord and Goshen school systems will receive less than half of what they had anticipated. The cuts are due to the “circuit breaker” tax caps, which put a limit on the amount of taxes property owners pay.

Those losses are divided proportionally between three funds for each school corporation — capital projects, which covers building maintenance, repairs and technology; transportation, which covers the gas, bus repairs and drivers’ pay to get kids from home to school and to extra-curricular activities; and the bus replacement fund, which pays for new buses.

That leaves Elkhart, Goshen and Concord quickly looking for ways to cut spending in those funds, likely to bring about overhauled busing and building maintenance plans.

GETTING TO AND FROM SCHOOL

Elkhart was already redesigning new transportation plans before learning just how tight its budget would be due to tax caps.

Elkhart’s transportation fund levy — the amount they had estimated to receive this year — was $7.3 million, but Umbaugh projects they’ll actually receive about $4.8 million, $1.3 million less than 2012’s transportation budget.

Elkhart Superintendent Rob Haworth said that administrators hope to have a new busing plan out by May, giving parents at least a month before the end of school to give feedback. The new schedule would start in the fall.

The plan will likely include running fewer buses, but with staggered school start and end times so that each bus runs multiple routes.

“Our students will feel that and it will change our community,” Haworth said.

Elkhart expanded school walk zones in 2009, and Haworth said that with some students walking two miles to school, the walk zones are the furthest they can go.

Concord and Goshen also have committees looking at how to save money by refiguring bus routes, cutting down on field trips and transportation for extra-curriculars, possibly seeing if public transit could help, and a number of other options.

Administrators from all three districts said they didn’t want to keep students from participating in extra-curriculars, but that not being able to transport students to after-school activities was a likely possibility.

In transportation, “there’s not a lot you’re able to cut,” Concord Superintendent Wayne Stubbs said. Students still need to get to and from school every day.

For Concord, a district with few sidewalks, walk zones aren’t a possibility.

For Goshen, expanded walk zones will likely be set for the next school year.

In the past, Goshen Schools absorbed tax cap losses by holding off on some repairs and building maintenance, keeping tax caps’ impact far from transportation. Due to a change in law, though, districts must now divide the difference proportionally between funds.

Goshen Superintendent Diane Woodworth said that the district will likely have to increase walk zones, which are currently at one mile, among other changes. Goshen already has staggered start times.

Even if Goshen does make multiple changes, “it still won’t be close to the $1.5 million we have to save,” Woodworth said.

Woodworth pointed out how the tighter budgets will impact students bused to after-school activities and how some families in the Goshen district don’t have cars. She said, though, she would feel especially bad for the young children that expanded walk zones could impact.

“Would you want your little first-grader walking two miles in the dark in the winter?” she posed.

MAINTAINING BUILDINGS

“In the good old days,” said Doug Hasler, Elkhart’s executive director of support services, “the roof was fixed when nearing the end of its useful life.” In other words, “before leaking and creating other problems.” Now, the school district can’t afford to do that.

“It’s reaching the point where our capital projects fund can’t do the things that it was intended to do,” Hasler explained.

Capital projects money was to be used for maintaining facilities and small projects, while schools would issue bonds for larger projects or renovations, school officials said. Now, though, Elkhart Schools will need to issue bonds for a few summer projects: a new chiller at an elementary school, a roofing project at Memorial High School and some other miscellaneous projects, including some paving.

“It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the only one available to us,” Hasler said.

Elkhart, Goshen and Concord are delaying some regular maintenance because they can’t afford it.

A school can delay repairs and keep the capital projects fund available only for emergencies, said Concord’s Stubbs, but “like our personal homes, if we don’t keep up with the upkeep, there will be a lot of emergencies all at once and it will all catch up with us.”

But administrators feel like there’s no other choice.

ANOTHER HIT TO URBAN SCHOOLS

Superintendents have talked to state legislators about helping relieve the impact of the tax caps, but are now focusing on how to save.

Concord, Elkhart and Goshen superintendents and business managers have been meeting regularly to swap ideas and see if there are resources they could share.

Elkhart’s Haworth explained that “school will start in August and we don’t believe there is anything we can do before August that will change the revenue side for us.”

Leaders in all three districts pointed to the inequity of the tax caps on school districts, saying that it seems to specifically harm growing, urban districts.

“Our focus should be how (to continue) to do a better job of educating kids...” Goshen’s Hawkins said, “but unfortunately, these issues are taking up so much time.”

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